What is the Middle Way?

What is the middle way?

Your hand opens and closes, opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings. – Jalal ad-Din  Rumi

In the quote above, Rumi illustrates DSC_1910a nature-based view of existence free from extremes, a kind of Taoist liberation discovered to be balanced and within us. A kind of middle way. Taoism itself is sometimes called the “middle way” and so is Buddhism. Both traditions, unlike the Judeo-Christian worlds of the Middle East, are non-theistic. They neither attempt to find a path toward God nor claim to follow commandments She might have set forth, but instead find their liberation in the inherently personal way-seeking practices of meditation or qigong, and in philosophies eminently sensible to individual study and application.

As for Buddhism, the fundamental elements of the middle way are present in the methods by which the Buddha gradually discovered it. Living the palace life of hedonistic pleasure sheltered from pain, young Siddhartha, in order to seek greater meaning, fled from his privileges and took up various practices of the ascetics of his time; fasting and other deprivations. Eventually he found that the practices of self-denial only led to greater duality – a war against the senses – and confinement. Starved and weakened from fasting, in the moment a young girl gave the Buddha milk to drink he revived into his first middle way revelation: that both hedonism and self-mortification were seductive but do not lead to liberation.

From this initial discovery, the middle way teachings evolved through the Buddha’s own sermons as well as countless discourses that followed his over the centuries. The most central (no pun intended) of all middle way teachings concerns the opposing views of eternalism, which deems everything to have a true meaning and nihilism, that nothing means anything. Both views possess compelling arguments and everyone, at times, falls subject to them. Transcending them is daunting since they form the unconscious conceptual structures of our world view. For instance, the conquistadors of Christian Spain had little qualms enslaving or murdering the inhabitants of Peru and Bolivia. Belief systems enabled them to be both theistic, holding convictions that non-Christians did not possess souls, as well as nihilistic, believing that it was of no consequence to slaughter the peoples of the New World.

Emerging from such diverse influences as the industrial revolution,Ocean stone Nietzsche’s death of God, The Holocaust, the aesthetics of post-modernism, the H bomb and environmental catastrophes, our own epoch is characterized by a pervasive and pessimistic nihilism. Heidegger’s famous quote, “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods,” proclaims how, as we’ve taken up the beliefs of scientific materialism, we’ve lost our experience in the unseen or invisible world. We have lost conviction in the magical dimensions of the world: shamanism, the angelic realms, the gods as the Greeks knew them, etc.

I once asked the late Buddhist master Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche about the pervasiveness of nihilism, even among Buddhists:

Question: The two major pitfalls of the student or practitioner are eternalism and nihilism. I think there is, if not a consensus, a widely held view that there is a lot of experience of nihilism in the West. This manifests as a diminished sense of this of co-participatory relationship with the world at large, and of the unseen world. What are your thoughts on this?

Traleg Rinpoche: I think so. I agree with you there completely and wholeheartedly. And it is a big problem and I think what has happened there is that people have embraced the western secular view of the world so totally that they have incorporated only certain aspects of Buddhism into their lives, and the other aspects of Buddhism that do not fit with that world view they have sort of ignored that completely, at their own peril. People can relate to Buddhist philosophy of shamatha and vipashyana and emptiness and even bodhichitta, I suppose, but anything to do with the other side of Buddhism – which even people like Nagarjuna and Shantideva were very strong on – deities, and trying to make some connection with invisible beings – if we don’t see them then they don’t exist and if we live in the modern world they are not real.

Eternalism is also pervasive in modern life. This takes the form and the perennial belief that we will not die, the subtle sense that we have an unlimited future. This internalized belief causes us to put any kind of discipline into the future, that we will finally begin meditation in earnest when we retire, or when we’ve built a beautiful shrine room in our back yard. In terms of artistic discipline, Charles Bukowski nailed this in a poem written to a woman who will begin creating as soon as she moves into her new-found studio with lots of “space and light”:

baby, air and light and time and spaceFlag
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses

Another highly useful aspect of the middle way are teachings that apply to meditation practice itself. Chogyam Trungpa described it as “not too tight, not too loose.” What this means is easy to understand though not always easy to recognize in one’s own practice, since, like eternalism and nihilism, each of us tends to fall into one of the extremes, making it difficult to see our own practice with fidelity. “Not too tight” means not too much effort, an excess of which brings tension rather than ease, self-consciousness rather than freedom from small self. “Not too loose” means enough exertion to stay awake, to not be constantly drifting into discursive thought, to not become simply dull.

In closing, we might turn to the words of the Buddha himself: “The middle path, O Bhikkus, avoiding the two extremes, has been discovered by the Tathagata – a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, to nirvana.”


Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

How to Bring The Monastery Into Your Kitchen

I recently staffed a four-week meditation retreat, called dathun (which in Tibetan means “moon-month session”). Dathun was designed by Chogyam Trungpa in the early 1970s as a rigorous form of group meditation, a way for his students to take the next step on the path.

Over the years, dathun evolved to include taking meals according to the tradition of oryoki, a form of dining developed in Zen Buddhism. I had a chance to re-experience oryoki in the dathun I staffed; here is an excerpt from my journal:

Twenty-eight days of meditation.  A strict schedule.

Taking meals in the oryoki tradition, a silent form of eating using spoon, chopsticks and four nested bowls, with cloths used to wash the bowls after you eat from them. The demanding rules of oryoki are at first intimidating and tedious, but ultimately rewarding in the way that any way of life that could go on forever is. You might not talk, but laughter is prevalent.

Initially oryoki, like meditation, can be irritating and tiresome. Every movement from untying the bow that holds the set together to the final moment of retying it is specifically choreographed (the choreography can be seen in full on this YouTube video). There is a strict order of eating and all food taken must be consumed. If the pinto beans from the kitchen are semi-raw one must still eat them! But once the form is learned it become effortless and warmly communal.

Oryoki also makes huge environmental sense. Not only does it generate no waste – no paper napkins, no plastic spoons, no landfill items – but it conserves water in the extreme. A spatula is used to pre-clean ones ones bowls and then rinse water is brought around to wash them. What happens to your rinse water once your bowls are clean? You drink it.

Typically, converts to oryoki leave meditation retreats longing to continue, at least in some way, this most mindful way of eating together. Oryoki, however, was designed for the monastery and it is not easy, or perhaps even advisable, to continue practicing it in your fifth-floor walkup or suburban kitchen. But there are ways to bring the monastery into the kitchen.
. . .
The etymology of Oryoki is telling, and apt to any kitchen or dining room:

O: the receiver’s response to the offering of food.
Ryo: a measure or an amount to be received.
Ki: the bowl.

Oryoki Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 5.23.32 PMOryoki means the bowl or plate we eat from, the amount of food we receive and, most significantly, our state of mind when we receive (and eat) the food. Normally we think a lot about the food we eat, but not much about our response of receiving it. Normally we might be polite to the wife, husband, mother, father or waiter who serves us our food, but we don’t emphasize those moments, we don’t cultivate them, we don’t regard them as moments of potential awakening.

And how often do we give thanks to the food itself, to the creatures – from earthworms to chickens – who gave their life so we could eat? We don’t often give conscious thanks to the plants and animals or to the resources – water, gasoline, even price tags – that brought the food to our table.



Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teaching and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

What is Lineage and How Do We Connect to It?

Buddhism takes pride in having a 2,500 year unbroken lineage stretching back to Gautama Buddha. But the passed-on knowledge of how to bake bread or construct a building like the Pantheon is also lineage.

Each of us lives at the intersection of countless lineages and without their skills and knowledge we’d be, culturally speaking, butt naked, thirsty and starving.

buddhist lineageIt is easy enough to fathom the lineages of baking or carpentry, but what is a spiritual lineage, something that seems so intangible? Buddhism as spiritual lineage is the transmission, from teacher to student, of our original or primordial mind.

Since it is innate and not external to ourselves, our original mind cannot really be “transmitted” but only pointed to.

When we recognize our original mind we become, in that moment, part of the lineage because we are sharing in the same quality of mind as the masters who preceded us.

As Chogyam Trungpa once wrote, “Father and child are one in the realm of thought” – though by “thought” what he meant was before-thought.

In order to discover lineage, Chogyam Trungpa wrote,

You have to look back, back to where you came from, back to the original state. In this case, looking back is not looking back in time, going back several thousand years. It is looking back into your own mind, to before history began, before thinking began, before thought ever occurred. When you are in contact with this original ground, then you are never confused buy the illusions of the past and future. You are able to rest continuously in nowness.

Meditation is the process in which we glimpse the moment before thought, moments of pure awareness or original Buddhist monks in Laosmind. It is in these moment of “nowness” that we join with the lineage. Similarly, seeing nature or moving works of art also brings about moments of nowness. When our mind is stopped by seeing a Caravaggio or Cezanne we become part of the lineage of these painters. When we glimpse pure awareness we become part of the lineages of Dogen, Milarapa and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Just as appreciation of a painting masterpiece brings love for the painter who created it, glimpses of the true nature of our mind brings love or devotion for the lineage. These glimpses spark a passionate relationship of longing for our teacher and the lineage of teachers who preceded us. This is one of the ways in which meditation is far more than mindfulness alone.

Without longing and devotion we cannot fathom what lineage is, much less become a bonafide part of it.

Since lineage is experienced on this inner level, its development is both linear and multidimensional. History and organization tell us something about lineage, especially in the cases when it was formally passed from one master to the next, but lineage is also an “infection” that is passed in ways that history and organizations can never fully record. Great masters touch countless people simply through their presence and we can never know how these moments of transmission become realized in the lives of their recipients.


By Bill Scheffel

How to be a Good Student

The Buddhist “Middle Way”

DSC_0684How to be a good student is a matrix of many intersections, one of which includes the standard definition of the Buddhist “middle way“: not too tight, not too loose.

Buddhism is the art of living, both an art and a science.

Being not too tight means, among other things, not becoming dogmatic and ultimately closed around Buddhism as a mere religion. Being not too loose means to maintain the disciplines one has been introduced to, the most important being meditation itself, what is generally called practice.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche often told his students, If you want to meet me in your life, practice.

The Definition of “Good”

What does “good” mean? It doesn’t mean becoming spiritually subservient, studiously avoiding being any kind of troublemaker or objectionist.

Good means that one becomes suited to spiritual development, that one becomes a good vessel for one’s own awakening and the reciprocal awaking of others.

The essence of being good is to live by vow. There are many types of vows in the Buddhist tradition but the essence of a vow is a commitment to being awake rather than merely following habitual (samsaric) patterns.

In everyday terms, vow means to implement one’s priority. Mother Tessa Bielecki, a Carmelite nun, put it this way:

You can start by prioritizing your activities, beginning with your spiritual practice. You could look at the day and determine what is the most optimal way to focus on your prayer or meditation, and then build the rest of the day around that. For most people, this usually means getting up earlier or going to bed later. My personal experience, and the experience of hundreds of other people I have spoken with, is that it is better in the long run to get up an hour earlier to do one’s practice than to sleep in.

Structuring one’s day to live by vow or priority is a choice and, like all choices, exists in a crossroads.

Habitual Pattern vs. Auspicious Coincidence

DSC_0671One direction is habitual pattern, what is called the nidana chain (in Tibetan, tendril). Habitual patterns are the usual course of things, all the conventional distractions – and these distractions are built around fundamental core beliefs of various poverty mentalities, all a feeling that we are not good enough.

Thus we might just lie in bed long after our alarm rings because we don’t fully want to feel a particular poverty mentality or depression, much less pass through it.

The direction that differs from tendril or habitual patterns is tashi tendril or auspicious coincidence. Following tashi tendril means to experience a type of mastery in our life, to follow the coincidences that present themselves in our ordinary day. Tashi tendril means that there is a kind of fundamental openness and even perfection that is the background for our usual state – being caught in the distractions of discursive thought.

Meditation: Learning to “Hold Our Seat”

Practicing meditation sets the ground for awareness of tashi tendril by bringing us into the openness and perfection of the moment. In many ways, sitting meditation is a rigorous act, even a martial art, in that we learn to “hold our seat.”
Seat is our body, where we are at any given time. Holding our seat means our mind and sense perceptions are attuned to what is going on around us. In this attunement, whatever shows up as phenomena – the positive or the difficult – we are able to hold our seat and ride the phenomena.

As Chögyam Trungpa put it, The warrior’s path is that you ride phenomena – phenomena are not allowed to ride you.

Trusting Ourselves

Riding phenomena is demanding, a lifetime commitment. But riding phenomena is also personal experience, which brings us to another aspect of being a good student: trusting ourselves.

DSC_0008It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the Buddhist tradition, a feeling that we cannot match the exertion and commitment of the masters of the past. At the end of a weekend meditation program, Chögyam once gave this advice to the students in the room: If you have any doubt about whether you are doing the meditation practice right or wrong, it doesn’t matter all that much.

The main point is to have honesty within yourself. Just do what you think is best. That is called self-truth.

If truth is understood by oneself, then you cannot be persecuted at all, karmically or any other way. You’re doing your best, so what can go wrong. Cheer up and have a good time.



Bill Istanbul2Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teaching and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

Pema Chödrön Teaches Tonglen Meditation

Tonglen, Tibetan for ’sending and receiving’, is a meditation practice designed for working with difficult situations. In this teaching, Pema Chödrön, demonstrates the basic technique of Tonglen meditation. The practice can be used to generate compassion for friends, animals, whole nations and groups of people, or yourself. “With the in-breath you breathe in with the wish to take away the suffering and you breathe out with the wish to send out comfort and happiness to the very same people, or animal or nations, or whatever it is you decide.” Tonglen is over one thousand years old, and is considered by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to be an important practice for developing altruism and selflessness. 
The Dalai Lama has said of Tonglen:
“Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.” He is known to practice the meditation every day. 

5 Reasons You Might Want a Teacher

A Teacher is knowledgeable about and practiced in, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha). They can help you understand the teachings in a practical way and challenge your preconceived ideas about the world. A good teacher will also be skilled in giving meditation instruction to keep your practice on track.

A teacher is of course not required on the spiritual path. The Buddha himself was self-taught. After studying under many gurus, he discovered that his own life would be his guide. However since we have thousands of years of teachings at our disposal, we don’t have to make all the same mistakes that previous practitioners made. A teacher can mitigate useless suffering on the path and point us in the right direction.

1. Buddhism is an oral tradition

Buddhism is primarily an oral tradition, transmitted from teachers to students since the time of the Buddha. Although, many books about meditation and Buddhism are available as learning resources, most traditions emphasize the importance of hearing the Dharma directly from a teacher. Some teachings in the Tibetan tradition, for example, can only be received by hearing them from a lama or senior teacher. An instructor can help you connect to the Buddhist path on a deeper level by embodying the Dharma in their presentation of the teachings.

2. Its easy to deceive yourself

A genuine teacher will challenge your ego and keep you grounded. Without guidance it’s easy to be deceived by your thoughts or feelings. Its important to be able to check in with someone who has been practicing and teaching for awhile who can help identify what is progress and what is self deception. What might feel exciting or like a big deal during practice, may just be a thought or feeling that that has taken over. In Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mihpham Rinpoche writes about visiting a student on a three year meditation retreat. After a year on retreat, Rinpoche’s student passionately described to him all the breakthroughs and revelations he was having. “Without saying he was right or wrong, I encouraged him to keep practicing,” writes Sakyong Mipham. After the second year, his student realized he was being sucked in by a thought process. “I realized it was just a giant thought. It lasted about a year, and in the past few months I’ve just seen it for what it was a let it go.” Having a teacher to check in with will help you avoid becoming stuck or pulled in by spiritual fantasies.

3. It helps you stay committed 

It’s popular these days to do a lot of spiritual shopping. Many people put together many elements from different spiritual traditions, making their own personalized path. While its good to find a path that resonates with you, dabbling without settling down can be a way to avoid going deeper. A teacher can help clarify a path, and keep you on the strait and narrow. Meditation can be challenging and a teacher who deeply understands the dharma can help you out when things get difficult. They can’t walk the path for you, but they can help you stay committed to the practice and stay honest with yourself.

4. Its good to ask for help

It’s sometimes tempting to take an aggressive or self-disciplining attitude towards meditation practice. Many students try to do it all themselves, feeling that they can be their own teacher. However, it’s a privilege to have support along the path. Having a teacher is no different from having a mentor as a child, or a university professor as an adult.  Its hard to self teach ourselves to read, and the same applies for meditation. A good teacher can teach the dharma in a way tailored to our personal background or personality, like a good teacher would accommodate their teachings to an individual students learning style. The path of meditation can also be more complicated than it seems. It’s useful to have a guide to teach us about the Buddhist perspective on working with the mind and emotions.  Being willing to ask for support is important so we don’t give up when the going gets tough.

5. Some traditions require it 

Many Zendos require students to have a teacher guide them on the path. Shambhala Buddhism requires students have meditation instructors to help answer questions and keep them grounded on their path. Some advanced teachings require close work with a teacher. This should not be considered a neccesity, but can be useful to gain a deeper understanding of complex teachings and tame your wild mind.

Learning to Meditate – Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Learning to Meditate with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Meditation is the practice of getting our mind familiar with relaxation and calmness.  In this teaching, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, demonstrates the basic approach of meditation, using breath as the object of practice. “Breathing makes us realize how fragile we are, how human we are and how precious things are.”

In his instruction, Sakyong Mipham teaches us how to work with thoughts and emotions during practice by continually bringing our attention back to the breath. He instructs us how we can adopt an attitude of relaxation and tranquility in our practice and develop a personal relationship to mind training by asking “Why am I meditating?”


Walking Meditation Instructions

Walking meditation is a great complement to sitting meditation and is yet another skillful means to add to your mindfulness tool box. Some people even prefer the walking to sitting, because the movement gives them something more tangible to be aware of. Walking meditation is also a very useful practice to bring into daily life, since – as it is true for most of us – we spend some time each day moving around on our feet. For instance, I find that when I do carpentry, I am most mindful during the periods I am walking to fetch a board or a box of nails, because this is usually a time when I have already made a plan and I don’t need to be thinking anything through.

These instructions are based on teachings I received from the many wonderful teachers at Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center, particularly Joseph Goldstein. I thank them for their wisdom and clarity. To do walking meditation practice, find a quiet place where you can walk back and forth. This can be in your home, or anyplace outdoors. As you walk slowly along, pay attention to the sensations that arise in your feet and/or legs.
DSC_0112After twenty to thirty steps, stop and turn around and repeat the process. Walking speed is an important question. At the fastest, your pace should be a bit slower than normal. Slowing down helps your mind become present. At this pace, it is best to notice the sensations in your feet as they contact the ground. Mental noting, just as in sitting practice, is very useful for reminding the mind what it is trying to do. At this pace, I recommend using the note “placing” or “step” or “pressure” every time a foot contacts the ground. It can be very helpful to slow down even more, and walk at a slow pace. At this speed, the attention can be in the feet on contact and in the leg as it swings. Use notes of “placing” for the foot contacting the ground and “moving” when the foot is moving to the next step. It can be really beneficial to spend some time moving very slowly, with attention in the feet on lifting and placing, and in the legs on moving. Use the notes “lifting,” ” moving,” and “placing.”
Joseph Goldstein recommends breaking up a walking period into three equal parts, starting with the slightly slower than normal pace, then the slow pace, and then the very slow pace. You may find this works for you for most walking periods. However, the sole criteria on proper meditation technique is whether it helps you be present or not, and there may be times when you need to vary the pace to whatever speed helps you be most present. Walking meditation is best practiced as a one-pointedness practice, where you keep bringing your attention back to the sensations in your feet and/or legs. When you notice you have been distracted, make a light mental note of “thinking,” and return to the sensations of walking. Remember, judging your practice never works because it is just more thinking. As Sharon Salzberg so wisely counsels, when you notice you have become distracted, just simply begin again. Every step is a new opportunity for awareness.

feet printIt is best to place the eyes far enough in front of you so that you are not seeing your feet moving. The point is not to watch your feet; it is to notice sensations in your body. For that matter, you may be seeing your walking body with your internal eye, which is also not the meditation object. Notice this “seeing” without trying to make it stop, and just simply return the attention to the sensations in your feet or legs.

I would recommend that you add walking meditation to your daily practice. If you sit every day, I would recommend doing walking for at least one or two of those meditation periods each week.

As you get used to the walking practice, you may find your attention naturally arousing as you are walking around in your day. You may be working intently at a problem on your computer, and as soon as you get up to go to the bathroom you might find yourself noticing the sensations of walking. I find this to be true even on busy days. On such days, I tend to be most mindful when I am walking between errands. Good luck bringing this great mindfulness tool into your life! May it benefit you and all beings everywhere.

Peter WilliamsPeter Williams has practiced meditation for 22 years in the Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, including many months of silent retreat, and has taught meditation since 2003. Peter is trained as a Community Dharma Leader by Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He teaches retreats in the Rocky Mountain West. Peter also practices as a transpersonal psychotherapist in Boulder. For more information about Peter click here.